So, you’ve written the beginning and the middle of your story. Congratulations! Now comes the tough part: how to wrap it all up in a way that readers will love. It’s one of the most important aspects of a novel because it often is the determining factor of whether or not readers will recommend your book to others, it’s your last impression, and it also has the power to disappoint and even ruin a perfectly good novel otherwise. As with all kinds of art, there is no clear set of directions that will give you the correct answer for your unique story and characters. However, there are a few key elements that every ending needs to have, regardless of genre or story, in order to be great.
The first of these elements is emotion. Whether you end with a happily ever after or with a tragedy readers will need a whole stack of tissue boxes to get through, you want the ending of your story to make your readers feel something. It could be frustration, uneasiness, joy, or excitement, but whatever the feeling is, you want to cultivate it in your story’s finale in order to make the most impact you can.
The next is perhaps the most important: the ending must be appropriate for the story you’ve written. Your twist might take your readers completely by surprise, or the last battle might be epic and stunning, but if it has nothing to do with the story you’ve written, it won’t make for a satisfying end, just as a flowery happily ever after doesn’t really make sense for a dark and tortured character who hasn’t seen any light from the start. There really are no rules to the way you conclude your story, but if you want something that will be satisfying, it must be appropriate for the story you’ve written.
Another tip (as this is more of a tip than an element), is to keep your readers in mind. If you’re writing a murder mystery, you’re going to have some very angry readers on your hands if the culprits and the investigator are gathered into the room and it ends with your detective saying “I have no idea who did it.” If you promise an epic battle of good versus evil in the beginning of your sci-fi and the story concludes without one, you’ll be in the same boat. This isn’t to say you have to write for a reader’s expectations, but rather a reminder to keep them in mind as you go about writing or plotting the finale.
Finally, you want the ending to carve out a lasting place in a reader’s mind. You want readers to be thinking of your ending for weeks after they’ve closed the covers of your book. So, what are some ways you can achieve this?
The number of ways to end a story is as infinite a number as there are stories to be told! For now, I’ll go into six different ways to conclude one, but keep in mind that these are not meant to box you in, but rather to show you just some of the countless options before you.
1. Fully Resolved / Closed Endings
This kind of ending leaves a reader with all their questions answered. A HEA is a great example of this type of ending, but it’s not the only option. If everyone dies at the end, that’s as much as a closed ending as saying that everyone went on to live happy lives!
2. Unresolved Endings / Cliffhangers
Unresolved stories leave their readers with a lot more questions than answers. They feature a great deal of ambiguity and often take the form of major cliffhangers. This path can cause a great deal of frustration in your readers, but if frustration is appropriate for your story, this might be the option for you! These are most commonly used in penultimate installations within a series.
3. Twisty Endings / Unexpected Endings
These are the endings that grab readers’ attention with some insane, captivating twist! The tricky thing about this style of conclusion is making the ending feel like it came out of nowhere while ensuring that it did not, in fact, come out of nowhere. These are the kinds of endings that make a reader go: “WHAT?!” and that tend only to become the obvious course of action on a second read-through or glance through the plot, keeping an eye out for all the little breadcrumbs of foreshadowing throughout. Warning: these endings have the potential to be COMPLETELY unsatisfying. To write one well, you MUST set it up before the end without giving it away completely. They’re tough, but when executed well, they can carry the most lasting impact of the six I’ll be going into.
4. Expanded Endings
Expanded in this sense basically means that it concludes with an epilogue. In these particular styles of endings, the epilogues often feature a flash-forward in time or are written from a perspective that differs from the one followed previously in the novel. These types of endings are great for answering questions that are otherwise in-addressable within the main plot or for leaving your readers with a completely shifted view of what they’ve just read.
5. Ambiguous (Open) Endings
You’ll notice this ending category sounds a lot like the second. In a lot of ways it is. There is a great deal of ambiguity at its conclusion to the extent that it doesn’t quite reach one. However, the difference is that these endings leave it completely up to the reader to decide. This is achieved by offering supporting evidence to multiple different endings such that the reader is left to choose which they want to believe in. A great example of this is in Nella Larsen’s Passing, which leaves the manner of Clare’s death up entirely to the interpretation of the readers by leaving clues that would support several different means. Depending on who you ask, the novel may have ended completely differently!
6. Ouroboros Endings (Tied/Circular)
Most popular in folklore and fairytales, an ending of this nature ends where it began. This is commonly seen in stories that closely follow the classic hero’s journey. In these endings, it’s important to create a feeling that ending in the same place it began was worth the time and journey it took to get there, so be careful!
As you can see, there are lots of ways to end a story! So long as you stay true to yours, set it up properly, and end on a powerful note, yours is going to be great.
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